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Miss Bailey Says…#4

“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #4

Typical scene reflecting large population of unemployed in desperate need for jobs in Camden, NJ
Typical scene reflecting large population of unemployed in desperate need for jobs in Camden, NJ

Introduction: In the depth of the Great Depression, the March 1933 issue of Survey Mid-monthly carried the first in a series of columns that would continue for a decade. The subject of the columns — Amelia Bailey — “Miss Bailey” to most people — was a 1930s-style virtual-reality public relief supervisor. She existed on paper only, created at the typewriter of Gertrude Springer, an associate editor at the Survey magazine in New York City. In what became a popular monthly column, Miss Bailey listened to and advised the inexperienced social workers faced with coping with the Depression’s desperate unemployed relief applicants. “Miss Baily Says…” columns dealt with issues such as: “When Your Client Has a Car,” “Are Relief Workers Policemen?,” “How We Behave in Other People’s Houses.” She gave common-sense advice to questions such as what to do when the relief worker observes situations such as bootlegging, clients with a bank account, a family on relief seen attending a movie, the daughter of a family on relief sporting a new permanent wave.  Below is one of her columns.

By Gertrude Springer
Survey Mid-monthly, June 1933, pp. 218-219.

What about relief investigators who, when visiting families:

Smoke if they feel like it
Holler upstairs
Pump the children and the neighbors
Look under the bed for extra shoes and into the cupboard for food?
– – – – – – – – – –

“But Miss Bailey, I asked her if she cared if I smoked and she didn’t even answer.” The young relief investigator was plainly aggrieved. “The old woman was sitting there, but I didn’t suppose I had to canvass the whole family before I had a cigarette.”

Miss Bailey scanned again the note the girl handed back:

Dear Miss: Please excuse me. I am not complaining. I don’t know how we would get along without the food ticket. But please could you ask the young lady who brings it not to smoke before my mother. She is old and don’t understand that ladies do such things. It makes her feel terrible to take the food ticket. She don’t like to eat the things. Please excuse me. Yours truly, Mrs. Anna Wilson.

“And anyway,” the girl went on, “I’ve never heard that social workers mustn’t smoke. I know plenty who do, and trained ones too.”

“On the job?” queried Miss Bailey mildly. “And do school teachers and trained nurses and other professional women smoke on the job and in public places?”

“But haven’t I a right to smoke if I want to?”

“Good gracious, yes. Or to walk on your hands down Main Street if you want to. I’m not bothered about you. But I am bothered about the state of mind of Mrs. Wilson when she wrote this note. You can see how upset she was, so afraid of giving offense yet having to do something about her mother’s feelings. I imagine she must be quite a nice woman, isn’t she?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve never had a bit of trouble with her.”

Miss Bailey’s mouth lost its humorous curve. “Well, she seems to have had with you, which is quite important, isn’t it? If your families don’t trust you, yes, and respect you, where will you come out with them? You know, you have to meet them where they are, not where you are. I’m not interested in your smoking. That is your business, not mine. But it is my business when your personal habits touch your relationship with your families. Good manners, tact, consideration for other people’s feelings and prejudices are just as important in Mrs. Wilson’s kitchen as they are in the White House‑more so, for Mrs. Wilson can defend herself only at the mortal risk of losing her food ticket. In this business we can’t be the kind of people who give that kind of offense. If you are the sort of person to whom a cigarette is worth the distress this particular one cost Mrs. Wilson and her old mother I suppose you’ll have to have the cigarette. But you’ll never be a social worker.”

A young family eating together in cramped housing conditions, a common site for social workers in the Great Depression era.
A young family eating together in cramped housing conditions, a common site for social workers in the Great Depression era. Library of Congress (1939)

“And that,” quoth Miss Bailey wearily as the door closed behind her visitor, “endeth the sermon for today.”

No one has yet been able to draw up a code of manners that will meet every contingency in the relief investigator’s day. Yet it is on the rock of manners, on little ways of behaving in other people’s houses, that many routine workers come to grief.

“We tell our new workers not to holler upstairs to find out if a family is home,” says the supervisor of a large city district where the investigators are themselves on work‑relief wages, “and we try constantly to get over to them why hollering is as cheapening to them as it is humiliating to the family they holler at. We had one young chap whose records were a joy to behold, who knew all the rules backward and forward, but whose procedure in a tenement‑house was to stand at the foot of the stairs and bellow: ‘Food tickets, food tickets! Hi‑i‑i!! Murphy, Jones, Rossi, Cohen. Come an’ get ’em.’ His answer to our protests was, ‘Well, they always come, don’t they?’

“Now, that young man probably hollered at his grandmother and she at him. He just didn’t know any better, and because he didn’t know any better he hadn’t any business in homes of people in trouble, He knew the rules, but he lacked the instincts.”

“One of the disturbing things we observe in these hurried days,” says the director of a child‑welfare agency, “is the way in which children look more and more to the visitor and less and less to their parents. The untrained visitor lets the children in on everything. They know that in her rests the selection of the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the pleasures they have, even the house they live in. The), lose respect for their parents while the parents resort to all sorts of exhibitionism in their attempts to maintain their status in their own homes. Many a blustering, bullying father is really making a last stand for his own self‑esteem.”

But given a staggering schedule of visits, the fact remains that voluble children and neighbors do offer the investigator a shortcut to information.

“There is no easier way to get information than by pumping the children and the neighbors,” says a social worker who stepped from a private family society to the job of directing a large staff, recruited almost overnight, in a public department. “But it is information that is apt to turn and bite you. In the first place a lot of it won’t be true, and in the second place this backstairs approach breaks down the basis of a relationship in which self‑respecting adults face a difficulty together and work out a solution in which both have a share. If the family itself has little reticence with the children and neighbors, the more reason the visitor should have.

“No one knows better than I do how hard it is to exclude children from these interviews. Very often the parents are more than willing to have them present. In such cases the visitor will do well to ask have the children sent out of the room. If they don’t go she should politely postpone the interview, explaining why, and take her departure. Now I don’t mean to say that the visitor should treat the children with stony silence. Far from it. Their play, their school‑all their affairs should be within the circle of her friendly interest. But the discussion of relief is the business of the grown‑ups.

“The visitor who seeks or accepts information from neighbors or permits them to sit in on an interview is asking for trouble. However indifferent the family may seem to neighbor participation in their affairs the day will come when they will resent it and the visitor will find her hand weakened. We urge our visitors never to question neighbors about a family and to resist all questioning from that quarter. Whatever the neighbors may know, and no doubt they know a lot, the visitor who swaps information with them is putting a rod in pickle for herself.

Large black family in Chicago on relief. While very present, the color line was sometimes overlooked in alleviating the dismal conditions of the 30’s on families.
Large black family in Chicago on relief. While very present, the color line was sometimes overlooked in alleviating the dismal conditions of the 30’s on families. Library of Congress

“These things are not rules laid down by a lot of old‑maid social workers, but are practices that have been tested by many years of experience in dealing with all sorts of families in all sorts of trouble, We know that relief, no matter how necessary, is a ticklish business. It does something to a family. On the way it is handled depends what it does. It can fortify courage, or it can break down self‑respect. Only those limited in human experience and those whose personality is itself without dignity say, ‘These people don’t care. They don’t know the difference.’ Whoever says that marks himself as more insensitive than those of whom he says it.”

The matter of checking up on claims of actual destitution comes down to the purpose of the home visit. If it is for the purpose of proving the applicant ineligible for relief then a search of the premises might be in order. If it is for the purpose of seeing the family in its own surroundings to gain insight into its condition in order to deal justly with its needs then a search would seem to defeat that purpose.

“I can’t get wrought up because people lie about themselves under the strain of applying for relief,” says the head of a small city department. “I’m pretty sure that if I were down to my last dollar I’d say I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from‑and how I’d hate the safe and secure person who pointed out that that last guilty dollar made a liar out of me. Perhaps if one grocery order would solve the problems of these families we might snoop out the cupboards and show them up. But we know it won’t, and what earthly purpose will It serve to force a family to lose face at the outset of a long and complicated relationship the essence of which is mutual confidence and good‑will?

“One of our new workers barged in here at the end of her first day to report that Mrs. Somebody‑or‑other had lied in her application. ‘She said there wasn’t a bit of food in the house, yet when I went there that same afternoon, mind you, there was half an apple pie on the kitchen table and through a crack in the cupboard door I could see a package of oatmeal. I just wasn’t going to let her get away with it. I pushed open that door and I said, ‘If this isn’t food what is it?’ There was a can of tea there too and something that looked like tapioca. ‘You aren’t going to get yourself anywhere by holding out on us.’

“That woman had five children and her husband had been without work for a year. A fine chance our bright little investigator left herself to carry that family along on an honest basis. She simply dared them to beat her at the game. And believe me, they can beat us if they want to, and taking away face is one of the surest known ways of making them want to.”

BUT there are communities where modern relief methods with their emphasis on cooperation between the giver and the recipient have made little impression, where iron‑clad rules require that the visitor look in the cupboard for food and in the cellar for coal.

“Given such a rule,” says a supervisor who grinds her professional teeth against it, “we are challenged to see how we can work under it with the least loss of self‑respect to the client and to ourselves. I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t the rule that does as much damage as dumb ways of enforcing it. The visitor who goes at it selfconsciously and by indirect approaches is bound to be set down as a snooper. The one who goes at it objectively as a routine part of the initial investigation, who says frankly, ‘It is necessary for me to look in your cellar to see if you have coal.’ will usually create less resentment than the one who goes all around Robin Hood’s barn before she gets to the cellar.

” But at best it’s a poor business, and I still think that the first visit should be used to demonstrate to a family, not that we have them under suspicion, but that we’ll trust them if they’ll trust us. If we can get off on that foot the truth will ultimately come out much more clearly than if we look for it under the bed or in the closet.”

Relief efforts were coordinated in rural areas as well as urban. Here a farmer is receiving his check at the Rural Resettlement Office.
Relief efforts were coordinated in rural areas as well as urban. Here a farmer is receiving his check at the Rural Resettlement Office. Library of Congress (1936)

In the old days before the cataclysm, when workers’ attitudes could be shaped by training, those congenitally addicted to hollering upstairs, to pumping information out of children and to peeping into cupboards were usually weeded out before they got into other people’s houses. But under the present stress there is no time for shaping attitudes. Supervisors generally must take their relief investigators as they find them. Which leads them to the conclusion that the only answer is to use surer judgment and greater discrimination in the selection of those people whom they turn loose on the lives of the unemployed. “For unless the new recruits possess the natural qualities of courtesy, tact and consideration, the training and supervision we can now give them are just about wasted. Unless we are good pickers we are visiting just one more misery on the victims of the depression.”

Source: Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries: www.

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